Arab-Americans in the Dock

Once again American missiles have been raining down on Baghdad and our servicemen and women placed in harm's way. The Israelis and the Palestinians are squabbling, as usual, over land and sovereignty, and both sides are mad at the United States even though we brokered their most recent steps forward toward peace.

The Middle East is far away, and yet we seem perpetually entangled in its problems. Most Americans probably wish the whole thing would go away. But on Feb. 26, 1993, the conflict there was brought home, and it became clear that we will remain inextricably involved for a long time. The bomb that exploded that day in the World Trade Center's underground garage indicated that American blood was going to be shed on American soil for reasons that most of us will never quite understand.

The Siege aspires to be a thinking man's action picture, using the conventions of that big-budget genre to go beyond the usual cliché of making Arab fanatics the villains and reflecting on some of the larger issues involved. Director Edward Zwick (Courage Under Fire) and co-screenwriters Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes are interested primarily in the civil liberties aspect of the problem, and they explore a what-if scenario in which the U.S. Army occupies a section of Brooklyn populated mainly by Arab-Americans and temporarily suspends the Constitution while conducting a house-to-house search for terrorist bombers.

The filmmakers' narrow focus is fair enough. A movie can only examine so many issues on a particular topic with any depth. Viewers should be warned that the complicated economic and geopolitical reasons behind our Middle East policies are glossed over, and it's never adequately explained why a tiny group of Islamic fundamentalists hate us so much they're willing to commit suicide in order to take American lives. But that's not the main problem.

Unfortunately, the inherent drama of the story is muddled because the movie begins with a well-paced, thrill-packed hunt for the terrorists and then changes gears to become a talky examination of the U.S. government's civil rights violations of Arab-Americans. In the process, the audience gets confused.

The film opens with TV news clips about Middle East terrorism which include a sound-bite of President Clinton during an incursion against Iraq a few years back. It reminds us that whatever we think of the latest Baghdad bombings there's always the possibility of a direct or indirect terrorist response.

The movie then invents a scene in which a fundamentalist Shiite sheik, who directs anti-American bombings, is secretly and illegally kidnapped in Libya by U.S. forces. Back in New York City, Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (Denzel Washington), the head of the FBI/NYPD counterterrorist task force, is hot on the trail of a suspicious-looking Palestinian immigrant. While under FBI surveillance, the prey is snatched by an undercover CIA operative, Elise Kraft (Annette Benning), who refuses to share with Hub what she knows about the Palestinian.

While the rival American intelligence agencies wrangle over jurisdiction and expertise, a public bus is hijacked by Islamic fanatics. Despite Hub's heroic efforts at negotiation, it's blown up, and both the terrorists and the innocent hostages inside are killed. The audience is led to believe that this incident is probably a response to the kidnapping of the fundamentalist sheik, but national security operatives don't let Hub and the FBI know he was ever taken.

The movie's message is that American government secrecy, illegal overreaction to terrorism, and interagency conflicts are as much a part of the problem as the bombers' ideology. The truth of this point of view is highly debatable, but it sets up all the action that follows.

To prevent the movie from degenerating into an anti-Islamic diatribe, the filmmakers have created an Arab good guy, FBI agent Frank Haddad (Tony Shaloub), who's Hub's sidekick in cracking the case. A Shiite originally from Lebanon, he proves as brave and as patriotic as any other law-enforcement movie hero.

Hub and Elise hammer out a way to work together, but it's too late. More savage terrorist actions follow. The public outcry persuades the president to declare a state of emergency and ask the military for help. General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis) initially opposes Army involvement, but once given the order to command the operation, he clamps down with bone-chilling efficiency.

Using Hub as its main mouthpiece, the movie asks all the right questions: At what stage does the safety of our citizens conflict with the protection of their rights? Is it ever worth ignoring the Constitution to preserve public order?

The filmmakers make a strong plea for respect for Arab-American civil liberties even in a terrorist situation. As one character points out, the overwhelming majority of them “love their country as much as we do.” The movie also has the young son of the dedicated FBI agent Frank Haddad illegally imprisoned.

But that wasn't good enough for many Arab-Americans, who organized demonstrations against the film across the country. The vivid images of Arab-Americans being herded behind barbed wire and detained in a huge stadium were deeply offensive to them despite the movie's strong condemnation of those actions. The protests seem to me unfair. In fact, they reinforce the value of airing these issues in a blockbuster like The Siege, which will reach a mass audience.

Ironically, it is the filmmakers' dramatic choices in underlining the violations of the Arab-Americans' civil rights that weakens their movie. They switch villains in the middle of the story in such a way as to confuse the viewer. A fanatic Arab sheik is replaced by an authoritarian American general as the ultimate bad guy. This diffuses the audience's rooting interest. It also presents U.S. military behavior during the siege as an evil equivalent to terrorist bombings — an interesting discussion point, perhaps, but it doesn't ring true, even within the framework of the movie's own action.

The result is a missed opportunity. The Siege could have raised its audience's consciousness on an important subject while entertaining it with a compelling story. Sadly, it does neither.

John Prizer is currently based in Paris.

The Siege is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.